Eustice a Hall of Famer in more ways than one
A boy named David Mensing takes the mat under the brightest of lights, at least figuratively.
The scene is years ago. A state championship is on the line for the Blue Earth’s high-school wrestlers.
And Mensing, something like 9-18 on the season, saw his No. 1 goal for the year not to get pinned once vanish long beforehand.
Up against competition far superior to him, or at least in size, he fights his way forward. A shifty move here. A hard hit there.
But it is not long before he is walking away from his gladiator match a bloodied victim of another loss.
Only one thing, though, was on his mind. He had not been pinned.
His defeat, another strike in the “L” column, became a moral victory. And it was more than that, too.
Mensing’s loss, good enough because the Buccaneer wrestler was not pinned to that state tournament mat, actually aided Blue Earth’s win that day.
The performance, Mensing proclaimed, was “the greatest loss I ever had.”
It was a showing that made Jack Eustice proud. And it came from a boy who made Eustice even prouder.
Now, years later, more than a decade removed from his post as BEA’s wrestling coach, Eustice sits in his Blue Earth home, no more than a few steps away from a room overflowing with plaques, trophies and newspaper clippings.
In four days’ time, on April 22, he will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Austin, embracing a rare honor as a staple of small-town sports history with no less than 263 wins, 18 individual state championships, a Class AA team state title and permanent local fame to his name.
And he cannot help but mirror David Mensing.
Mensing, of course, now fully grown with a family of his own, was but one little roughed-up kid to have passed through Blue Earth during Eustice’s reign as a leader of a storied rural program. Yet the stroke of humility that capped off his season and a memorable Bucs victory is strikingly similar to and equally as profound as the attitude with which Eustice built his Hall of Fame career.
It all began in 1978, when Eustice and his wife, Mona, moved to Blue Earth and “there were only a couple of good jobs,” the retired coach says.
Actually, he clarifies, it all began earlier than that.
A 1976 Division II national title and top-three finishes in 1974, 1975 and 1977 as a wrestler for Minnesota State University, Mankato, proved that. So did four regional titles, a fourth-place state finish and, yes, even a state championship at Janesville High School, just under 60 miles from Blue Earth.
“I was really fortunate,” Eustice says of his early success in the sport. “I had two older brothers who wrestled, and by my sophomore year, I went to the conference tournament, and I was next to guys like Mike Niemczyk, who is now in the Hall of Fame I guess I was halfway decent.”
Even if Eustice is quick to gloss over his own feats on the mat, his numbers speak for themselves. His four All-American honors at Mankato ultimately landed him in his college’s Hall of Fame, not to mention that of NCAA’s Division II. Deemed a Male Athlete of the Century by MSU, he was also crowned a member of the North Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Wrestling Team.
At the time of raking in the recognition, of course, Eustice says he was soaking in his success.
“I thought I knew everything,” he admits.
That attitude would change quickly and was in stark contrast to the signature selflessness with which Eustice ultimately led wave after wave of young wrestlers, but it may have helped him land his first coaching job in Blue Earth.
Confidence, after all, was not lacking in a man fresh off an illustrious, title-winning career. And for Blue Earth, a school that took pride in its wrestling program and was preparing to say farewell to another Hall of Famer in longtime coach Dick Maher, the match seemed perfect.
Until Eustice realized that wrestling, like much of life, is all about the relationships.
Not “pushing them too hard.” Not churning out characterless champions. Not adding to his extensive wrestling resume.
“When they offered me the job,” Eustice recalls, “they said, ‘We’re pretty sure you’re going to be a good coach, a good teacher and a good role model.'”
That last part struck him.
Coaching, even for a newbie in the role, was not too tall of a task for Eustice. (The record books will support that.) Neither was teaching. Alongside his wife, who also taught at the high school in town, he found himself immersed in history, psychology and sociology classes.
It was Eustice’s steady grasping of the “role model” responsibility, though, that powered his more-than-20-year run atop the Buccaneers coaching staff. It was his progressive embrace of the relationships accompanying the sport that fueled him to keep going and, coincidentally, keep on piling up historic achievements.
Maher’s influence had a lot to do with it, Eustice says.
“He was a mentor a master at connecting with people. He always made me realize that it’s not about the coach, that they aren’t your kids (wrestling). That egotistical stuff irritated him.”
And it seeped into the way Eustice conducted himself, the wrestling program he oversaw and, most importantly, his family.
Like their father before them, Ty and Luke Eustice ended high school as decorated wrestlers, then flourished in college play before translating their prowess to related careers Luke is the director of wrestling operations for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, and Ty is the executive director of J Robinson Intensive Camps, a nationwide training regimen named after the former Olympian and University of Minnesota wrestling coach.
But neither Luke nor Ty, whose state titles in high school came under the direction of their dad-turned-coach, were belabored with wrestling talk once they entered the home.
“Once we came in here,” Eustice says, “we didn’t talk about that.”
It was a conscious decision made not out of contempt for an overabundance of wrestling activity but to emphasize responsibility and relationships. And it stemmed from Eustice’s own upbringing, a tactic that fostered his own growth long before the days of All-American recognition, state championships and head coaching duties.
“We never talked about wrestling,” he says. “My parents didn’t go to many meets. And the kids don’t need parents making excuses for them.”
Eustice’s wife, Mona, helped bring that notion to life. Even though Jack jokes that she was a “good recruiter” from the classroom, one of her signature in-home reminders for both the coach and all the young men for whom he was responsible went something like, “You don’t have to be a state champion every day, but you can get better every day.”
And getting better every day, of course, did not mean simply tallying wins on the mats.
“You can’t fake passion, but the biggest mistake you can make with a program is looking at a third-grader and saying, ‘He’s never going to be good,'” Eustice says. “There’s a lot more going on. There’s a culture to it. There’s relationships.”
Eustice sure did not need anyone making excuses for him, either, especially when it came to filling Maher’s shoes.
A state title in 2001 capped off a 263-87-4 career leading the Buccaneers as their varsity head coach. Six team section titles, nearly 20 individual state championships and another runner-up spot at state in 1997 were hard to ignore. And 263 wins did not and still do not go easily unnoticed.
Wherever Eustice makes his presence felt, whether in the Blue Earth Area High School gym, where he now offers his insight as a color commentator for KBEW’s meet broadcasts; in the grade-school wrestling programs that often request his heralded instruction; or at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame banquet, which he first attended in 2011 on behalf of his late mentor and predecessor, Dick Maher; everyone thinks “great wrestling.”
Or so everyone thinks.
“I don’t know about great,” Eustice says with a smile, “but they think wrestling.”
The Hall of Fame induction, of course, validates the support from Eustice’s biggest fans, cementing a legacy that is showcased in the coach’s home collection of plaques, trophies and newspaper clippings but also is hidden in part due to Eustice’s insistence on valuing relationships over achievements. Other things also keep Eustice busy now, like working as a superintendent for Nicollet School District, thinking of his four grandchildren, reminiscing on days sparring and later bonding with rival coaches, keeping tabs on BEA’s newest crop of wrestlers under Randy Wirtjes.
But the cloak of humility is still draped squarely on his shoulders.
The mirror image of his mentality is that of, say, a boy like David Mensing.
And it all made and makes a Hall of Fame leader out of Jack Eustice.